Chris Goldfinger: Man with the Midas touch

Chris Goldfinger's first job in Britain was as a DSS anti-fraud officer. He tells Ian Burrell how he made the leap to Radio 1 DJ
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The Independent Culture

It is 5.15am, and the atmosphere is hot, clammy and thick with marijuana smoke. From every vantage point - the balcony, the bar, the back of the stage - people are straining to see two reggae sound systems (one from Japan and the other, from Jamaica) struggling for supremacy. As each specially commissioned dubplate sends a bass-heavy tremor through the foundations of the Ocean nightclub in east London, the huge crowd erupts with a blast of air horns and whistles. At the side of the stage stands Chris Goldfinger of the BBC, waiting to award the trophy. In every sense, Goldfinger has his hands on the prize.

Two decades after dancehall reggae first emerged from the backstreets of western Kingston, Jamaica, the genre has finally taken its place at the top table of global commercial music. If you had tuned in to any mainstream radio station, from Virgin to Magic, in the past 12 months, you may well have heard dancehall artists such as Sean Paul, Wayne Wonder and Kevin Little. You could have switched on a music television channel and seen videos by Elephant Man and Beenie Man, passing on invaluable tips to provincial English teenagers on how to perform the latest dances such as the Log On, the Fly the Kite and the Signal the Plane. Reggae radio shows won an unprecedented four nominations in the prestigious Sony awards this week.

It is a remarkable transformation of fortune for a music form that at the start of the 1990s was demonised as the soundtrack to - and to some, the inspiration for - the spiralling tide of drug-related gun violence in some of Britain's biggest cities. Dancehall has reinvented itself as the ultimate party music; no longer a tribute to gangsterism and the latest ballistic technology, it is about sex and fun. Dancehall's new status means that it has the potential to be a vast money-spinner, like its cousins in the urban-music spectrum, hip hop and R&B.

And as far as Britain is concerned, Goldfinger is the face of dancehall. For the past eight years he has presented The Dancehall Show on Radio 1 on Saturday nights. "At the moment, dancehall is the best I have ever seen it," Goldfinger says. "The dance element of dancehall has come back."

For Goldfinger, the key to the music's success has been the realisation by the dancehall artists of the self-imposed limitations of embracing lewd, violent or homophobic lyrics. "Now that the music is a worldwide popular music force, the artists have to clean up," he says. "When the music is going to be played outside of Jamaica they have to be very careful what they say."

Since the first dancehall record (thought by many to be 1985's Sleng Teng by Wayne Smith), the genre has had several false dawns. The most notable was the "ragga" explosion of the early 1990s, which saw Shabba Ranks win a Grammy award before his career stumbled as record bosses tried to re-groom him for the American market.

Ten years later, America - especially black America - is ready to accept dancehall on its own terms, helping raise the genre's mainstream status.

Last Saturday night at Ocean, sound systems from Italy, America, Japan, Jamaica and Britain competed for a UK Cup, demonstrating the global appeal of the music.

Jamaica's Black Kat narrowly defeated Mighty Crown, a sound system from Yokohama, who learnt their Caribbean patois and encyclopaedic knowledge of reggae when living among the West Indian community in Brooklyn, New York.

Goldfinger was on hand to award a trophy sponsored by the BBC digital radio station 1-Xtra. Although new chairman Michael Grade was not among the seething crowd, the association of the public broadcaster with such an event would have been unheard of only a short time ago.

Goldfinger can hardly believe his good fortune. He used to earn his living taking benefit fraudsters to court as a member of the legal department at the Department of Social Security.

The DJ moved to Britain in 1988, after growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, as the son of a nurse and a carpenter. "England was just a totally different world. I came in the February and it was freezing cold," he says. "I left the land of wood and sunshine and came to the ice box."

Back in Jamaica, Goldfinger had played for the students at the University of the West Indies with the Soul Symphony sound system and had sold his mix tapes to the mini-buses that blast music while touting for passengers on the streets of Kingston. But he arrived in England to study. "My parents would rather that I went to college than selling cassettes to mini-buses and running up their electricity bill."

When Goldfinger began visiting the London reggae clubs he realised they were out of touch with what was happening back home. The British-based sound systems played only one record deck and used rappers to "MC"(also known as "toasting") lyrics over instrumental beats. Back in Jamaica, the twin Technics turntables were already king, allowing DJs to loop beats and mix seamlessly.

Goldfinger formed a sound system called Asha World Movement and was soon the toast of the British reggae scene. The early life of Asha was very much underground, playing blues parties in houses with blackened windows and the music lasting all Saturday night "until one o'clock on Sunday afternoon when EastEnders started".

By 1993, Asha World had defeated all the biggest British sound systems such as Coxsone, Saxon and Gemi Magic. Goldfinger became known back in Jamaica as the man who was "running England". David Rodigan, the long-standing reggae presenter on London radio station Kiss FM, asked Goldfinger to stand in for him. Shortly afterwards, he was invited to take part in Tim Westwood's show on the rival station Capital. When Westwood later moved to Radio 1, he tipped off the Jamaican that the station's revolutionary controller Matthew Bannister was looking for a reggae DJ.

He beat 40 other candidates to get a job that gives him enormous status in a reggae diaspora that now stretches to every continent. "You cannot get higher than that," he says. "That's just like jumping straight on top of the ladder without climbing the rungs."

When he started presenting his Radio 1 show, he was warned that the midnight slot would be disastrous ("the audience I was trying to attract were going to the clubs at that time") but he has stuck at his task. Diehard dancehall fans now stay in later to hear his show, and his national reach has attracted a new audience in cities such as Exeter and Middlesbrough, which had never before been associated with Jamaican music.

"You go to these cities and see a predominantly white audience and the crowd is moving, not just moving because the beat sounds good but they're singing the words to the songs," he says. "And not just in the UK. In Belgium and in Germany people are dancing to the same music and singing the same songs. It's the same vibes."

The UK Cup Clash will be broadcast tomorrow (Saturday) night on BBC Radio 1 at midnight